Aftershocks hamper quake rescue efforts as mass graves fill up

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The Independent US

Authorities buried many of the 400 victims of El Salvador's earthquake in mass graves, saying a landslide that wiped out entire families had made it impossible to fully know the identities of the dead.

Authorities buried many of the 400 victims of El Salvador's earthquake in mass graves, saying a landslide that wiped out entire families had made it impossible to fully know the identities of the dead.

Strong aftershocks sent rescuers fleeing, but they quickly resumed the desperate hunt for hundreds of missing, using sniffer dogs, shovels and their bare hands.

Distraught relatives lined up at an improvised morgue in a bloodstained alley to identify some of those mangled and entombed in Saturday's 7.6-magnitude quake. But the need to dispose of the mounting number of corpses cheated some of the chance for closure.

One woman looking for a pair of missing cousins showed up at the morgue in the half-buried Las Colinas neighborhood only to find out that two children who matched their description had already been sent to a mass burial.

"My cousins are similar to the ages of the ones you buried, and they are missing," 18-year-old Kenya Marbella told stern-faced soldiers who said it was too late to see the bodies. "How could you just throw bodies in the ground like that?"

With no refrigerated facilities, and bodies and body parts piling up in the alley near the quake-triggered landslide that covered Las Colinas in a wall of dirt, there was little choice but mass burial, said coroner Mario Alfredo Hernandez. About half of the corpses were unidentified, he said.

With aftershocks as strong as 5.4 magnitude rattling the unstable mass of soil and rubble, there was no safe place to keep the 182 bodies found in the area so far.

Some corpses lay peacefully on the pavement as if the victims had lain down for a nap. Some were covered in trash bags.

President Francisco Flores asked Colombia to send 300 coffins.

Red Cross official Mildred Sandoval said 403 deaths had been confirmed nationwide. Police also reported 2,000 injured, 4,692 houses destroyed and 16,148 damaged. Authorities said about 1,000 people were still missing, most in Las Colinas, located six miles east of San Salvador.

Saturday's quake off of El Salvador's coast was felt from northern Panama to central Mexico - a distance of more than 1,100 miles. Sunday's aftershocks were centered within a few miles of the capital, according to local seismologists.

Pope John Paul II urged international assistance for the nation of 6 million. Offers of help came from Mexico, the United States, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, Britain, Panama, even Guatemala, which itself suffered six deaths in the quake.

Unlike the night before in El Salvador, when hundreds of survivors steered diggers to areas where their family members might be buried, starkly fewer people waited for relatives and friends to emerge from the immense landslide Sunday.

"Most of those that are under there now were with their families when they died," said police officer Rafael Hernandez. "With everyone already dead, there is no one here to claim many of the bodies we find now."

But as some gave up hope, incredibly, a survivor was brought up from beneath tons of soil late Sunday.

Workers rescued 22-year-old Sergio Moreno, who was trapped for 30 hours under slabs of concrete. He had drawn rescuers' attention by tapping on the concrete.

Red Cross volunteer Lucio Castellano said he suffered dehydration and a cut leg but was in good condition otherwise.

During Sunday afternoon, a powerful aftershock caused more of the hillside to collapse, sending rescuers fleeing in panic. Nobody was injured.

Body-hunting dogs, sent in from the United States and Mexico, sniffed for the living and the dead under the blinding sun.

One led authorities to the battered body of a Las Colinas man who was wearing nothing but a navy blue bathing suit when the earthquake killed him. His body went unclaimed.

Meanwhile, those who could identify their dead held hundreds of funerals Sunday. Junior church officials in T-shirts helped lead graveside services, while bone-weary priests in sweat-soaked suits tried to come up with new ways to reassure a devastated nation.

"Oh, mama, tell me how this could happen, tell me what else I could have done," stammered Jose Cruz Torres, who buried three sisters and three grandchildren lost to the quake Sunday.

He began to sing a hymn in Spanish, but the lyrics were soon drowned out by his sobs.

"It's like the world here is upside down."